Inside terrifying ‘mega jail’ that can house 40,000 inmates in concrete cells

A terrifying prison built to be the “biggest in the Americas” is large enough to hold 40,000 people and is already nearly half full less than a year after it opened.

The Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT) opened in El Salvador in early 2023, and it welcomed its first 2,000 inmates in February.

Nayib Bukele hailed the “single operation” at the time and welcomed the prisoners to their “new house” as they served terms on terror charges.

According to the CECOT’s last count, issued in August this year, the prison housed 12,114 inmates in a 410-acre concrete structure.

The brutal-looking centre’s outside mirrors its interior governance, with human rights groups having called out instances of torture, “ill-treatment”, and deaths behind bars.

READ MORE: The peaceful-looking island home to a chilling abandoned prison

CECOT was first opened nearly a year ago after President Bukele declared a “war” on crime in El Salvador.

The institution was built in an isolated part of Tecoluca, in the country’s San Vicente department, away from urban centres or public institutions.

Inmates are kept in cells under the supervision of armed, masked guards, with videos showing them being paraded through a white, concrete interior.

Footage posted by President Bukele showed tattooed prisoners chained together as they walked barefoot through otherwise empty halls dressed only in a pair of knee-length white shorts.

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Pictures showing inmates standing in their cells show crowds of people flanked by bunk beds.

The metal bunks are constructed 80 at a time to sleep up to 100 people, and the anonymous warden said there would “be no mattresses in the cells”.

When the prison opened, it was announced that prisoners would only be allowed to leave their cells for legal hearings conducted via video conference or for punishment in windowless, dark isolation cells.

The prison was founded after President Bukele called a state of emergency to tackle gang crime in El Salvador, a move a report by Human Rights Watch concluded violated multiple rights of prisoners.

The 89-page report concluded: “These human rights violations include arbitrary arrests, 

“In addition, the circumstances of many deaths in custody during the state of emergency suggest state responsibility for those deaths.”

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